Most cultures include one or several carnivalesque events in their ritual calendars. This is evident in pagan European festivities as much as in African, Asian, and American festivals. Since the 1970s and the gradual convergence between anthropology, cultural history, and sociology through the frame of ‘carnival studies,’ there has been much debate about whether carnival is a liberating social ritual. While Mikhaïl Bakhtin saw it as ‘the people’s second life, who for a time entered a utopian realm of community, freedom, equality, and abundance’ that allowed for ‘the temporary suspension, both ideal and real, of hierarchical rank’ (Bakhtin 1965), critics like Terry Eagleton have argued that carnivals are a ‘licensed affair’ institutionalized by elites as a safety-valve or ‘permissible rupture of hegemony’ for social release and political control. Indeed, one can argue that there have always been attempts by dominant or hegemonic groups to tame and sanitize carnivals, or to eliminate them altogether.
The modern history of American and European carnivals in instructive in this regard. Maria Isaura Pereira de Queiroz thus showed how, far from being ‘[the celebration of] what lies on the margins and boundaries of society, in its interstices’ as described by Roberto DaMatta in 1983, Rio de Janeiro’s carnival was created by the Creole elite from the Portuguese tradition of the entrudo in order, precisely, to limit its transgressive potential and preserve the city’s power system (de Queiroz 1992). A long-term view suggests, however, that the decline of European carnival relates to systemic social change rather than the efforts of powerful social groups. Samuel Kinser argues, for instance, that the decline of carnival can be attributed to ‘the combined forces of industrialization, bourgeois standards of orderly respectable behavior, and diminishing Christian traditionalism’ (Kinser 1990) It thus can be argued that carnivalesque rituals are neither about outright rebellion or passive acceptance. Instead, it can be argued that carnival embodies a ‘ritual of intensification,’ in which the forces that govern ordinary life are expressed with a particular, clarity, and eloquence (Burton 1997; Agier 1995).
In summary, the counterargument to the safety-valve thesis is that ‘the existence and the evolving form of carnival have been the outcome of social conflict, not the unilateral creation of elites.’ (Scott 1990) Carnival is not a victory for one social group over another but a ritualized, ‘infra-political’ space where these conflicts are contested. It circumvents dominant modes of representation and objectification and confronts the limitations of binary oppositions. From this perspective, carnival is about the aestheticizing of politics and ‘is thus politics masquerading behind cultural forms.’ (Cohen 1993)
Using the conclusions of Bakhtin, Eagleton, Kinser, and Cohen among others, the second issue of the Journal of Festive Studies will bring together historians, anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists, folklorists and other specialists of carnival to explore the links between carnival and politics as showcased by celebrations in Europe, North America, the Caribbean, Latin America, etc.
All texts should be between 6,000 and 12,000 words and should be uploaded by March 31, 2019 on the journal's website (https://journals.h-net.org/jfs), along with the author’s bio and an abstract of c. 250 words. Please contact Ellen Litwkicki ([email protected]) and Aurélie Godet ([email protected]) with any questions.
- Agier, Michel. Anthropologie du carnaval. La ville, la fête et l’Afrique à Bahia. Marseille: Parenthèses/IRD, 2000.
- Burton, Richard D.E. Afro-Creole: Power, Opposition, and Play in the Carribean. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.
- Cohen, Abner. Masquerade Politics. Explorations in the Structure of Urban Cultural Contexts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
- DaMatta, Roberto. “Constraint and License: A Preliminary Study of Two Brazilian National Rituals”, Secular Ritual, eds. Sally F. Moore and Barbara G. Myerhoff. Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1977: 244-264.
- Eagleton, Terry. Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism  New York: Verso Books, 2009.
- Grindon Gavin and Terry Eagleton. Carnival Against Capital: The Theory of Revolution as Festival. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2007.
- Kinser, Samuel. Carnival, American Style. Mardi Gras at New Orleans and Mobile. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1990.
- Perreira de Queiroz, Maria Isaura. Carnaval brésilien: le vécu et le mythe. Paris: Gallimard, 1992.
- Scott, James C. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
- Stallybrass, Peter and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.